It was a square green box that looked like the kind of car you would peddle when you are three years old. The doorman let me in through the right back door. The bench seat inside was roughly covered with white blankets. These towelling blankets were strewn across the seats in an attempt to stop you hurting your bum on the cracks and creases. Unless of course they were there to prevent you doing any further damage to the already badly damaged black vinyl seats.
There was some interchange in Mandrin between the driver and the doorman over my destination. Well I suspect it was over my destination, as I only have a few basic Mandrin words and none of them pertain to directing a taxi. The raising and lowering of voices both in tone and strength gave me the impression they were having some sort of intense debate about a subject that was far more important than where I was going for the evening. The doorman’s black bear-like arm reached through the window offering me the return of my hotel address card. You could only see his face as he wore gloves and a huge black coat that reached almost to the ground. A turned up collar around the back of his neck, he had a round furry hat with wings that stuck out the sides by his ears.
“Thank you sir, have a good evening,” he said.
Before I could reply the hand was withdrawn and the cab lunged its way around the round-about and back out the way it had come in.
The air was cold, very cold, and the slightest hint of a breeze made it even colder.
The cab was like a box of independently pivoted beams, axles, springs and body panels.
Every bump started a chorus of squeaks, grinds, whines, wails, squawks, thumps and thuds, as each part of the body tried to travel in its own direction. The sounds brought to mind a hospital full of geriatric patients with arthritis. Each joint of the body was screaming for lubrication and none was coming their way.
The cab driver rushed from one side of the road to other desperately trying to get one foot further ahead of the million other rival cab drivers who were threatening us from every side.
He squeezed through gaps and nosed into corners that were too small for us. The driver had adopted a technique of rushing up at the target gap as quickly as he could, to beat the six other cabs that had spotted the same gap. Then inches from a metal on metal prang, hit the brakes as hard as he could. The vehicle would shudder to a screeching stop. I imagined the metal of the brake lining desperately trying to get a grip on the metal of the brake drums. All their fingers and toes were pushing as hard as they could to stop the rotating wheels. They were true to their task and prevented us a thousand times from being crumpled into the back of a bus or a truck. They must have worn their fingernails to the bone.
The cars that surrounded us talked with their horns in impatient terms, and the buses spoke to us in Chinese. Yes that’s right. As you passed the buses they carried out a conversation with the passing car in Chinese. Well don’t get me wrong, the car didn’t reply in Chinese it usually replied with a parp or a honk. If you don’t believe me you should travel to Beijing and you will know it’s true.
My driver negotiated his way almost all the way to my hotel and then at the very last second he took a 180-degree wrong turn.
“Wrong way, go back” I told him in perfect English wondering why I’d bothered as he only appeared to understand perfect Chinese.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry, loop, loop” Ah, he knew at least two words of English. That was encouraging. We were on a twelve-lane highway that was jam-packed in both directions. This is what they call a side street in Beijing I believe.
All the cars were beeping. Parping and hooting with the joy of having so much fun being altogether like this in one place. It was a party of vehicles all mingling in some side street of Beijing. We had the cars, the trucks, the buses, hundreds of bikes and other peddle vehicles weaving between each other and grabbing the rarely appearing gaps. Oh what fun they were all having.
I had resigned myself to watch the fun and enjoy it, as sooner or later we were bound to get close to my hotel. My driver had turned off the meter and I felt comfortable that it was an honest mistake and he had things under control.
The journey had all the elements of a hair-raising roller coaster ride. We would tear off after that ever elusive gap, and then screech to a halt behind something far bigger than us as the lights turned red. Oh the relief when they did. I never would have thought I would enjoy red lights as much I did during this trip. They provided a peaceful oasis of tranquil, motionless time, in which to prepare for the next assault on a break in traffic.
As suddenly as we had taken the wrong turn, we parked outside the hotel. My driver turned to me with a smug self-satisfied grin and said quite clearly,
“Sorry, sorry, sorry”
“It’s okay mate, no worries mate” I gave him the normal cab fare plus a bit on top for the entertainment value.
He grinned with satisfaction and I went upstairs to my room to have a stiff gin to calm my nerves.